Not even in fiction is Saartjie Baartman spared the reduction to her physical features that attends her life in Europe.
Contemporary media today could argue that representation of the black female body has come far from a place of spectacle and vilification to one of celebration. We see the rise of pop stars like Beyoncé, sports stars like Serena Williams and political figures like Michelle Obama. And yet, with their rise, there comes no reduction in conversation around their bodies, their (hyper)-sexuality and this constant nudging at maintaining the black female body as the foreign Other. The rhetoric of age-old racism that hinged the black female body on excesses that relegated it as ‘too much’ and yet still maintained it as ‘not enough’ to be equal, to be respected or to be valued remains in conversations on respectability. Age-old racist modes of public spectacle, the caricature cartoon for example, still makes its appearance in the contemporary age, taking the 2019 racist cartoon of Serena published in an Australian newspaper as an example. The black female body as public spectacle fits snugly under the adage that there is nothing new under the sun, as a historical trace back into the 1800s offers a look at one of its beginnings.
The Caricatures of William Heath
Having first been occupied by portraiture and the painting of military scenery, it was with satire that William Heath, a nineteenth-century British artist, found fame. Although he only began to concentrate fully on political cartoons and caricatures from 1820 onwards, his best-known work, A Pair of Broad Bottoms, appeared ten years earlier, in 1810. Based on Frederick Christian Lewis’s aquatint of Saartjie Baartman, A Pair of Broad Bottoms is a hand-coloured political caricature featuring Saartjie, the former British prime minister Lord Grenville, and Richard Sheridan, British playwright and parliamentarian.
While the caricature was most likely published for the general public, it is now held by the British Museum, which purchased it in 1868, as part of a massive collection of 10,000 satirical prints from the Edward Hawkins estate. Considering Heath’s work was not only published but also purchased, it quite clearly describes the general attitudes of the time towards Saartjie.
Who Was Saartjie Baartman?
One of the pair of bottoms in Heath’s caricature belongs to Saartjie Baartman, a Khoisan woman from South Africa’s Eastern Cape, who, in September 1810, was invited on a voyage to England to perform in exhibitions by Alexander Dunlop, a military surgeon who doubled as a supplier of animal specimens to performers in Britain. Saartjie arrived into a British society, which, while settled on the biological inferiority of Africans, was nevertheless contending with opposite impulses towards the continent—primarily, the continuation or abolition of slavery. Although Britain was still the largest purchaser of slaves at this time, it was also home to a vociferous anti-slavery campaign. And so while Saartjie’s body was subjected to voyeuristic objectification through numerous exhibitions across London, British abolitionists objected to her display on the basis that it was ‘contrary to morality’, an ‘offence to public decency’ and ‘the most horrid of all situations [of] slavery.’ In fact, an abolitionist court case was brought against the continued exhibition of Saartjie in the very month in which Heath produced his caricature. That case was decided against Zachary Macaulay’s abolitionists after Saartjie testified that she partook in the exhibitions of her own free will. The anticlimactic conclusion of the Saartjie court saga inspired a deluge of satirical content from proponents of slavery and African inferiority, including Heaths’.
The Racist Underpinnings of Heath’s Comic Framings
That Heath employs Saartjie as his standard of insult is, therefore, not entirely surprising. Lord Grenville, the other bottom in the caricature, became prime minister in 1806 after cobbling together a motley coalition known as a broad bottom government in British politics. Grenville’s government, under which Sheridan served, was responsible for passing legislation abolishing the slave trade in 1807.
Heath’s portrayal of Grenville with a larger behind alludes to Grenville’s broad bottom politics and public opinion of his antics. Sheridan’s comparison of the behinds of both Grenville and Saartjie with a compass is a humorous chide of their disrepute, reducing both personalities to one arguably disreputable physical feature. That Heath chooses to depict Sheridan in the act of measuring Saartjie’s behind when he very well could have chosen Grenville’s foreshadows Europe’s turn towards racialist science and subtly signals that she is an exotic specimen to be collected, measured, classified and frozen in place. This, in fact, becomes Saartjie’s fate in France. Grenville is merely the tourist in these ignominious surroundings; Saartjie is the perpetual public spectacle.
Heath’s comic framing rests on certain settled racist assumptions in that society. To compare the Hottentot Venus, a member of ‘the most ignoble group in the progression of mankind’, to white male nobility was the most absurd and comical consideration of the time. Heath objectifies Saartjie and exaggerates Grenville so that he is now comparable to the Venus. Having levelled this disreputable playing field, Heath proceeds into the meat of his insult. He insinuates, through Sheridan’s exclamation, that a Hottentot—socially, racially and intellectually inferior—still surpasses Grenville, rendering the noble and his politics as useless in one fell swoop. It is perhaps safe to assume that Heath’s artistic treatment of Saartjie corresponds with his own view of her and places him in opposition to Grenville’s support of abolition and justice.
Not even in fiction is Saartjie spared the reduction to her physical features that attends her life in Europe. In the artwork, as in other caricatures, Saartjie exists in a dual nature—exotic yet primitive, sexualized yet deviant, Othered yet fascinating. Ultimately, Heath’s artistic choices provide insight into the historical context of Saartjie’s arrival on the British Isles in the early nineteenth century. And though characterized by exaggeration, his caricature compels reflection into the ways the production and dissemination of these distorted images leave a mark on black bodies.
‘Othered yet Fascinating’
It is not only situated in time; Heath’s caricature also continues to provide links between Saartjie’s exploitation and today’s debates on black body politics. The institution and history of slavery combined with the use of mass media have inscribed lasciviousness and meaning onto black bodies that aren’t as easily undone or unlearned. Origins of black body politics that rest in histories that are the like of Saartjie’s leave black women contesting with ideas of hypersexuality, exoticism and eroticism still in this modern time. In fact, modernity has brought its own paradox as aspects of black sexuality are now celebrated when adopted by whiteness—bigger butts, bigger lips, cornrows and others.
The origin of black female body politics began with a premise of pleasure, passion and submission through the sexual exploitation of black women through exhibition, rape or concubinage. Today, centuries-old racism has in many ways translated to a scrutinizing public eye on black women, the management of their sexuality and exploitation of their bodies still visible in politics, pop culture and the media. Colonies were built on the notion of ‘who could bed and who could wed’ and how far could one say we have come when we examine photography, film, music and media overall in 2020?⎈
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